Last and First Men (2017)

Rates: * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? Seen as part of MIFF 2020 via their digital platform.

Cast, crew, etc

Trailer

In the far distant future, our sun has become unstable and the Earth uninhabitable. Humanity’s distant descendants flee initially to Neptune, where we found a new civilisation. As the aeons pass, humans change with their environment; over many millenia eventually evolving into a new species.

Millions more years pass. Billions. Evolution continues. The idea of ‘humanity’ becomes a historical concept, then a meaningless one. Our descendants eventually become – perhaps? – beings of energy that have no corporeal form, and communicate with us, in the past, with increasing difficulty.

Stark, moody, and inscrutable, this cerebral sci fi is a film like no other. Its sole cast member, Tilda Swinton, never appears on screen, but instead narrates our future history via a disembodied voice. She is the perfect choice; Swinton has just the right tone for a virtual alien, sounding both recognisably human, while slightly other. And her description of future events shows her craft; none of it will ever happen, yet it is undeniably compelling.

The look of the film is arresting; a series of mostly static, black and white images of buildings, and artworks. This is a mixture of animation, CGI, and real sculptures from an outdoor park in Yugoslavia, that in combination do effectively seem otherwordly. You have a sense of: different intellects, different realms. The evocative score, a live recording of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, adds to the mood.

This unusual assemblage seems to be about the immensity of time and space, and of history. The perspective of our small planet makes it almost impossible to gauge the scale of the universe; we can sort of visualise the distance from here, to the shops, but not from here, to Neptune. The immensity of a distance like that confounds us, much as a trip across the Pacific Ocean confounded people a thousand years ago. ‘Space’, as Douglas Adams wrote, ‘is really big.’

Likewise, it is difficult to get a sense, in any meaningful way, of the vast expanse of time that the universe operates on. The average human life lasts 80 odd years; how then to imagine the approximately 2 million years, since our ancient hominid ancestors evolved? Or how to imagine the 4.6 billion years the earth has existed? It is really beyond the capability of our imagination. But this film makes a stylish and interesting try. In grappling with these ideas it has a similar theme to ‘2001’ – the evolving nature of our species – but a very different approach; dreamlike, impressionistic, I actually found it very relaxing.

History is not over, and whatever the human race eventually evolves into will find us, their forebears, as strange and primitive as we find our own ancestors. It is a never ending cycle, played out on an infinite scale.

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